Oct 31, 2022

Progressives retract letter on Ukraine.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Image: Ronald Woan
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Image: Ronald Woan

Plus, a question about Evan McMullin and caucusing in Congress.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we're covering the progressives criticism of Biden's approach in Ukraine — and then the backtracking. Plus, a correction, a poll to determine what we cover next, and a question about what it means to caucus with a party.


I just caught an older correction that should have been updated sooner. In our lengthy primer for the 2022 midterms, we noted that Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona had "resigned" when previewing the race to fill his seat. This was inaccurate language. Ducey is a term limited governor who was first elected in 2014, and cannot run again because he is finishing his second term this year. So he is not resigning, but stepping down after serving the maximum term allowed in office.

This is our 70th correction in Tangle's 168-week history and our first correction since October 10th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Reader feedback.

Last week, we wrote about learning loss across the U.S. One former teacher in New York City wrote in and noted something our coverage may have overlooked:

"You’re missing a piece to the learning loss puzzle that is really obvious to educators, but not politicians," she said. "The test scores are artificially low because the kids didn’t actually try to take the tests. They had no real accountability regarding schoolwork during the pandemic, so they didn’t take these exams with fidelity... There is learning loss, but no teacher I have spoken to is as spooked by these results as the politicians and general public are. That being said— kids are truly struggling to be in school right now after their pandemic experience and there is still not enough follow through from administrators and parents. They cannot focus and are addicted to their phones that they had complete access to during remote learning. It isn’t pretty."

Quick hits.

  1. Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), was attacked in their San Francisco home early Friday morning. Pelosi was beaten over the head with a hammer and is currently hospitalized. The suspected attacker has been arrested, and details surrounding the attack are still emerging. (The attack)
  2. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in two cases challenging whether race should be considered as a factor in college admissions. (The arguments)
  3. A Tennessee man who dragged a police officer into the mob during the riots at the Capitol on January 6 has been sentenced to over seven years in prison. (The sentence)
  4. Former President Barack Obama is hitting the campaign trail for Democrats, including major appearances in Michigan and Wisconsin. (The campaigning)
  5. Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva appears to have defeated Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil's presidential election, with a 1.8% lead in results. Bolsonaro has yet to concede the race. (The win)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

The progressives’ letter on Ukraine. Last week, a group of 30 progressives in the House urged President Biden to shift his strategy on the Ukraine war, before quickly withdrawing their call for more diplomacy in his approach.

It started on Monday, when the group, led by Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), released a letter asking Biden to pair funding with a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a cease fire.” It was the first time members of Biden's own party had pushed him to change his approach to the war in Ukraine. Specifically, the group of House Democrats expressed concern that the United States is not engaged in regular dialogue with Russia as part of its effort to end a protracted war. Rather, the Biden administration has remained steadfast that it is up to leaders in Ukraine to decide when and where to negotiate with Russia.

“Let me be clear: we are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine in their fight for their democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion,” Jayapal said. “Diplomacy is an important tool that can save lives — but it is just one tool.”

However, the letter caused such a wave of backlash that the group of Democrats withdrew it less than a day after its release. According to Politico, the letter was initially scheduled for release in early August, but was delayed and eventually released without the knowledge of many of the Democrats who had signed it. Rep. Jayapal contended that the letter was released improperly by a staffer without thorough vetting. Just weeks before, Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) warned that aid requests from Ukraine won't get a "blank check" if Republicans take back Congress. Jayapal said coverage of the letter conflated her caucus with GOP divisions over support for providing more aid to Ukraine (she contends that progressives are unequivocal in their support for aid).

Democrats in Congress expressed frustration about the "amateur" nature of the letter's release, and concern that it would undercut the party's unity and position on Ukraine heading into the midterms. Some conceded they signed the letter over the summer, but would not have supported its release now.

“Timing in diplomacy is everything,” California Rep. Sara Jacobs, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that Jayapal leads, told CNN. “I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today.”

Still, the letter created a wave of commentary about Democrats’ position on the war in Ukraine, and whether progressives should be applying pressure to the party leadership. Interestingly, there are divisions on both sides of the aisle about the letter, as members of both parties have expressed growing skepticism about the path forward in Ukraine.

Today, we are going to examine some reactions to the letter from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is divided on the letter, with some criticizing its timing and others praising progressives for a reasonable proposal.
  • Many Democrats worry this could signal to Putin that support for Ukraine is cracking.
  • Some progressives argue that there was nothing wrong with the letter, and progressives should have stood by it.

In The Washington Post, Charles Lane said Putin is in Ukraine for the long haul, and we must be too.

“It was predictable that Republicans, from would-be House speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) on down, would equivocate about what McCarthy called a ‘blank check’ for Ukraine. The GOP is in thrall to former president Donald Trump, who has been loudly demanding a negotiated settlement," Lane wrote. "More surprising was a letter issued Monday by 30 progressive Democrats, led by Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), which went beyond Trump’s call for the United States to broker a Russia-Ukraine deal and advocated a direct U.S.-Russia negotiation. As a rationale, it alluded to the nuclear threat and the war’s cost to taxpayers.

“Forty-two years ago, Saddam Hussein sent his army into Iran, expecting little resistance and easy territorial gains, only to see the invasion stall,” Lane wrote. “Eventually, the two sides negotiated peace — after eight years of horrific combat and 500,000 deaths. There is no moral equivalence between democratic Ukraine’s resistance to Putin and the fight by theocratic Iran against Saddam. Still, a lesson from the Iraq-Iran War is that a dictator can keep pursuing military aggression long after it is obvious he miscalculated. No one can say how long that period might be in Putin’s case, but displays of irresolution from members of Congress probably won’t help shorten it.”

In New York Magazine, Eric Levitz said the letter was "right" and "pointless."

“The [Congressional Progressive Caucus] did not counsel capitulation to Vladimir Putin’s war aims. Rather, the caucus argued that any negotiated settlement must preserve ‘a free and independent Ukraine,’ enjoy the support of the Ukrainian people, and include ‘security guarantees’ that would oblige major military powers (presumably including western ones) to defend Ukraine in the event of a future Russian invasion,” Levitz wrote. “Critically, the CPC stipulated that the White House must not coerce Ukraine into such an agreement, as ‘it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions.’ In other words: The United States must not threaten to withdraw military aid in order to persuade Ukraine of the merits of a peace deal but must instead maintain aid for as long as Ukraine deems appropriate.

“Yet the letter was almost universally condemned for selling out Ukraine," Levitz wrote. "On one level, the controversy the letter generated is easy to understand. The missive came one week after House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy suggested his party might try to cut off funding for Ukraine should Republicans secure congressional control in November... On another level, though, the brouhaha over the CPC’s statement is bizarre. In the document, progressives put forward a framework for peace that is roughly as hard-line as any proposed by their party’s hawks. The liberal legislators sketch a diplomatic resolution in which Ukraine remains ‘free and independent’ while enjoying the protection of security guarantees from western powers, an arrangement that would bring Ukraine under NATO’s security umbrella, in fact if not in law. The letter does not counsel any territorial concessions.”

In CNN, Stephen Collinson said Putin has been waiting for this moment, and the first cracks may be starting to appear.

“It’s clear that a bipartisan consensus for aiding Ukraine still exists in Washington. But the rumblings that Biden’s hardline on Russia may not always enjoy near unanimous support came at an especially sensitive time as the West seeks to discredit Russia’s latest round of nuclear rhetoric – a warning that Kyiv could use a dirty bomb. The claims have led to high-level talks between US and Russian military chiefs and are widely being interpreted as either more scare tactics or perhaps an attempt by Moscow to create a false flag operation that could be used as a pretext for its own use of weapons of mass destruction,” Collinson said. “This is why signs of fraying political resolve in the United States, and in some allied nations, are so significant. They could convince Putin that a war of attrition over the winter could sooner or later cause fatigue in the West and therefore weaken Ukraine’s ability to fight.

“And yet some of the questions raised by those who are cautious about the US stance are relevant and important,” Collinson wrote. “A foreign policy operation that lines up the United States against its former Cold War foe and nuclear rival must be constantly evaluated and justified by the President, given the cost and risks. The fact that there is no diplomatic track in the conflict – Biden has several times mused privately that he doesn’t know what Putin’s ‘off-ramps’ might be – is worthy of discussion and, potentially, testing in contacts with Moscow. And at a time of raging inflation and economic hardship in the United States, it is incumbent on the administration and its supporters to demonstrate to American taxpayers why a war on the edge of Europe is sucking up billions in public money, even if it’s not as if Ukraine currently has the ‘blank check’ McCarthy mentioned.”

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are divided about the letter, with some arguing that progressives got embarrassed and others saying it was a gift to Putin.
  • Some conservatives say it’s proof of how "wrongthink" is treated when it comes to the war in Ukraine.
  • Others say the letter was misguided, and progressives are undermining the one thing Biden has done right.

In Politico, Rich Lowry panned progressives' "humiliating retreat."

“House progressives made a terrible mistake — they used the D-word in public," he said. "The D-word in question is ‘diplomacy,’ which has long been a favored word of Democrats. Indeed, it’s their go-to proposal for solving any international problem, no matter how intractable or threatening. That it has now become a toxic notion in the context of the Ukraine war is a sign of how a justified feeling of moral righteousness among backers of Ukraine is swallowing rational thought about how the war might end... You don’t have to endorse any of the specific proposals talked about by these very different people to be disturbed by the campus-like fervor with which they have been deemed unsayable and unthinkable.

“Although it’s possible that the Russia war machine, if it can be called that, simply collapses in Ukraine, it is more likely that war will end in some messy compromise involving a negotiated settlement,” Lowry wrote. “Acknowledging this — and that the continuation of the conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe with enormous costs for the West and the world — shouldn’t be a quasi-thought crime... Still, a member of the House Democratic leadership told POLITICO Playbook that ‘Vladimir Putin would have signed that letter if asked.’ This isn’t remotely true, but it shows how departing an inch from the orthodoxy on the war is automatically taken as an admission of fondness for the Kremlin, even when Democrats are talking about other Democrats.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board congratulated Democratic leaders for taking on the "progressive" revolt.

“Vladimir Putin watches American politics closely, and this was a sign of U.S. retreat that needed to be beaten back," the board said. “The letter had urged President Biden to pursue diplomacy with Russia to end the war in Ukraine. The missive was a terrible message to send while Mr. Putin is bombing civilian targets in Ukraine even as his troops retreat from territory they occupied early in the invasion. 'The letter was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting,' Ms. Jayapal said in statement... That strikes us a too-convenient excuse, since the progressives had clearly drafted and signed a letter with an intent to release it at some point.

“The better explanation is that many senior Democrats, in Congress and the White House, were furious at this message of appeasement to Russian aggression," the board wrote. "Every war ends in diplomacy of some kind, but negotiating with Russia over the heads of the Ukrainians, who are doing the dying, is immoral and not in America’s interests. No useful diplomacy is possible as long as Ukrainians want to fight for their homeland and Mr. Putin refuses to cede territory. The quickest way to change Mr. Putin’s mind is to continue supporting Ukraine so it can keep rolling back Russian forces. A Ukrainian defeat will make Mr. Putin that much bolder, and NATO’s frontline states will be next on his target list."

In The New York Post, Dalibor Rohac said progressives have undermined "the one thing" Biden has done right: Rally support for Ukraine.

“While shrouded in verbal displays of support for the Ukrainian government and people, there is little daylight between the letter and the expressions of indifference to Ukraine’s fate coming earlier from the likes of J.D. Vance, Ohio’s Republican Senate candidate. The far left and the far right believe, wrongly, that the United States and its hard power is a force for ill in the world and that our government should focus instead [on] problems at home,” Rohac said. “The Squad would benefit from talking to actual Ukrainians first. Sure, a short war is preferable to a long one. Yet what matters far more is whether Ukrainians liberate their country and stop the enslavement of thousands of their fellow citizens in occupied territories.

“More important, their call for the administration to ‘seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia,’ the signatories — who included Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — put on display their complete lack of understanding of Ukraine’s situation,” she wrote. “The reason this is not the time for some chimerical ‘negotiated settlement and ceasefire’ has nothing to do with anyone’s lack of effort but rather with the fact that the existing differences of opinion between Russia and Ukraine cannot be resolved at the negotiating table but only on the battlefield. Specifically, the Kremlin continues to believe it can successfully destroy Ukrainian statehood or, at the very least, absorb a sufficiently large part of Ukraine’s territory and population into Russia. Ukrainian leadership, in contrast, is convinced it can repel the Russian invasion altogether.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I was happy to see the letter.
  • To me, nothing inside it should have been that offensive or objectionable.
  • It would be great if anti-war Republicans and Democrats could actually start working together, rather than avoiding each other.

I was actually glad to see the letter.

I've written a lot about Ukraine over the last year or so, and most recently about the worthiness of imagining a "best case scenario" where Putin loses, is forced out of power in Russia, and Ukraine retakes territory it lost beginning with the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ceding the points of many of my readers, I've begun to think it is worth at least imagining and wishing for that reality in the future — as it truly does look like the best-case scenario, and even if it isn’t the most likely outcome, it’s a possible one.

But my own political ideologies are also fundamentally anti-war. And, so long as we are continuing to operate with global reach, as a global superpower, with the strongest military on planet earth, I'd much prefer there to be a significant, outspoken, and unafraid group of congresspeople that are pushing an anti-war agenda. To me, that's how the letter read. That it puts some progressives on a similar footing as the potential GOP leader and other House Republicans is a good thing, not a bad thing. Our country has been desperately starved of a strong, bipartisan war-skeptical coalition for decades. We should all want a Congress that fears protracted war and nuclear holocaust, and operates with an abundance of caution when it comes to funding conflicts thousands of miles away from our shores.

I think it is also critical that we focus on what the letter actually said. Progressives called for direct talks with Russia, yes. They also called for bringing Ukraine under the protection of NATO, zero territorial concessions, and preserving an independent, sovereign, and democratic Ukrainian state. Which sounds to me exactly like what Volodymyr Zelensky wants.

"Such a framework [for negotiating a ceasefire] would presumably include incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief, and bring together the international community to establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians," the letter said.

The Washington Post framed such a proposal as a "dramatic shift" to Biden's strategy in Ukraine, but, as Eric Levitz noted, the U.S. Defense Secretary was speaking directly with his Russian counterpart the day before its release. And as progressives point out in the letter, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself has "reiterated that the war 'will only definitively end through diplomacy,' and had previously explained that 'any mentally healthy person always chooses the diplomatic path, because he or she knows: even if it is difficult, it can prevent the loss of thousands, tens of thousands...and maybe even millions of lives.'"

Does a diplomatic end to this war with zero territorial concessions look likely right now? No. It doesn't. But it shouldn't be offensive to suggest we become proactive about seeking one out, especially when it's explicitly suggested we don't negotiate over Ukraine's head. And it certainly shouldn’t cause the kind of backlash and backtracking that it has.

Progressives were right to release the letter. Furthermore, they should stop being afraid of "looking like" certain members of the House GOP who might actually see eye-to-eye with them on the war's future. The same goes for House Republicans and the progressive caucus. McCarthy’s “blank check” comments have been framed by the press as some kind of undermining of Ukraine, but they were more just a push against unconditional support for undetermined periods of time. Progressives and House Republicans may not agree on the terms of any potential peace deal. They also might. There is clearly a lot of skepticism from both parties about a “blank check” future, what should be required to continue funding the war, and how the Biden administration may help usher in an end to it.

Unfortunately, each party's purity tests kill any hope for legitimate bipartisan agreement before the platforms are built, even when agreement is plain to see (as it was in the brief 24 hours that progressives stood by the letter's release).

My belief is that we should continue to defend Ukraine. We should support them in their fight for independence and reclaiming the territory that has been annexed. And we should use all the diplomatic skill, leverage and experience we have to actively seek out an end to the war. This should not be controversial, it should not be cause for condemnation, and we should be thrilled to see the early form of a bipartisan coalition operating with a lot of skepticism around war.

What should we cover?

There are a lot of potential Tangle topics in the pipeline right now. Obviously, we have some of our content schedule already set, but I'm very curious what our readers want us to cover in the next couple of weeks. So I created a poll so you can vote on some potential topics, and space to suggest something you'd like to see that’s not on my list.

Want to help us choose? Click here to vote.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I'd like to understand more about the possibility of Evan McMullin caucusing with the Republicans, Democrats, or neither. What does it mean to caucus with one party or the other and what are the implications of choosing neither? Would he have reduced influence, or maybe more, as a possible deciding vote? Thanks for the thorough and impartial coverage, I really appreciate your newsletter.

— Josh in Clinton, Utah

Tangle: Great question, and thanks for the kind words.

There are a few different definitions for "caucus." There are, as in Iowa, "caucuses" to determine a presidential nominee — which was often how it was done before the primary elections. In this context, though, caucusing is about the decision to partner with a political party in Congress, which is very significant. For instance, when you hear "Bernie Sanders," you probably think of a far-left Democrat. Yet Sanders is actually an independent, he just caucuses with Democrats — making him a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate.

In the U.S., caucusing with one political party or the other means you tend to negotiate and meet with that party privately. Internally, caucuses in Congress (both broadly speaking or more specifically, like the Congressional Black Caucus) operate under specific rules to advance ideas, vote on positions or on leadership, and negotiate legislation. So, if Evan McMullin were to caucus with Democrats, that means he is unlikely to be invited to private, internal meetings among Republicans. If, as he says he intends to, he were to caucus with neither party, it'd be an open-ended question as to what kind of access he'd get on either side.

For instance, a Republican Senate caucus might meet to decide which candidates it wants to back in the primaries. Or, a Democratic Senate caucus may meet to decide whether it wants to support or oppose another round of Covid-19 funding. These caucuses are opportunities for each party to wield and direct power, which means opting out of them would make McMullin a uniquely unaffiliated member.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Russia said on Saturday that it is suspending its participation in a UN-brokered deal to allow Ukraine to export agricultural products like grain through the Black Sea. The deal, which was negotiated earlier this year, helped ease worries of famine and hunger spreading in parts of the world that rely on Ukraine's exports for food. But Russia says drone attacks launched against its fleet in the Black Sea are cause for abandoning the agreement. A total of 218 vessels are now "effectively blocked," Ukraine says. Some 9 million tons of agricultural cargo had been shipped through Black Sea ports since the deal took effect on August 1. The Associated Press has the story.


  • $17.9 billion. The amount of military funding the United States has provided to Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
  • 66%. The percentage of Americans who support the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine, according to an early October poll.
  • 34%. The percentage of Americans who said the U.S. should send troops to Ukraine to help it defeat Russia, according to the same poll.
  • 6%. The fall in number of legal abortions in the first two months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
  • 95%. In states that have banned or severely restricted abortion, the decrease in legal abortions in those two months.
  • 11%. In states where abortion remained legal, the increase in the number of abortions.

Have a nice day.

A restaurant owner in Kirkland, Washington, noticed that there was a lack of fish in the stream outside of her business. Holly Smith is the owner of Cafe Juanita, named after Juanita Creek, which runs alongside the restaurant. In 22 years, she said she had seen one fish in the creek. So she decided to partner with King Conservation District and Adopt-a-Stream to help restore the creek by pulling out invasive plants and adding wood retaining walls along some of the shoreline. The day after the two nonprofits finished their work, Smith says, she came outside and saw 15-20 fish swimming in the creek. It was so astonishing she thought someone had stocked it overnight with salmon, but it was really just the immediate result of their work. K5 News has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.